It’s always a big deal when Serena Williams takes the court at a Grand Slam, especially as she chases down her 24th title. She also plays fewer tournaments outside of the Slams these days, so any chance to see her is a treat, even if the match comes without context. That said, there was plenty of context going into her US Open first-round match against Maria Sharapova.
But it’s not because that is a particularly exciting rivalry. In fact, it’s not really a rivalry at all. When Williams first faced Sharapova, there was potential, but nothing materialized because Sharapova, by and large, couldn’t beat Williams.
With Monday’s dominant victory over Sharapova (a 6-1, 6-1 win that was over in under an hour), Williams is now 20-2 against Sharapova, with a third “loss” coming last year when Williams had to bow out of their Round of 16 matchup at Roland Garros before it got underway.
Who fuels who?
There is little to actually substantiate a rivalry on the court, but off of it, there’s even less. It makes sense to be excited about seeing two great tennis players face off — but there isn’t anything deep or intimate about this rivalry, if it can indeed be called that.
When Williams was beat by a 17-year-old Sharapova in their second-ever match, back in the 2004 Wimbledon final, there was talk that the American was crying and furious over losing, and that Sharapova witnessed it in the locker room. Sharapova later revealed in her 2017 autobiography that Williams allegedly told a friend “I will never lose to that little b**** again,” following the defeat.
Williams would go on to lose to Sharapova again later that year, but then won 18 consecutive matches, including seven finals, against her.
It’s obvious that Williams, an emotional player, is as driven as any and would use any loss to fuel her desire to get back in the win column. But in Sharapova’s 2017 autobiography, she talks about her and Williams fueling each other’s careers and while that sounds nice, there really isn’t a lot to indicate it was actually a two-way street.
Williams has said little about Sharapova’s anecdotes from her book, calling them hearsay and noting that she’s cried after many of her losses. Sharapova seems to have used Williams to motivate herself plenty, but I’m not seeing it from Williams.
Rivalries need a give-and-take
Without anything to point to the two being massive enemies outside of tennis, we’re left with what’s on the court. And what’s on the court isn’t pretty for Sharapova.
Going into Monday’s match, Williams held a 19-2 mark against Sharapova, beating her on all surfaces and usually in straight sets. During her stretch of 18 consecutive wins over Sharapova, Williams only dropped three (!) sets. Williams won in straight sets as recently as the quarterfinals of the 2016 Australian Open.
Comparing their careers gives Sharapova some cache because she’s been plenty successful, but they still aren’t close. Sharapova was the first Russian woman to be ranked first overall in singles competition, and the only Russian woman to own a career Grand Slam. She’s won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and US Open once each, and the French Open twice, with her last win coming in 2014.
Five titles is certainly an accomplishment, but they’re also tainted by a failed drug test in 2016 that resulted in a lengthy suspension and turned away a lot of her fans. Her accomplishments will also always live in Williams’ shadow.
Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most of any player in the Open Era and second all-time behind Margaret Court. Williams is fighting for No. 24 right now, though she is already widely considered to be the greatest women’s player (and in this writer’s opinion, the greatest period) of all time.
It makes sense that people want this to be a rivalry. It had the makings of one when the young Sharapova pulled off that upset in 2004.
But Williams quickly outgrew the feud and moved on to bigger and better things, like winning Grand Slams, often at Sharapova’s expense, but usually without facing each other in the process. In other words, Williams outpaced Sharapova’s accomplishments so quickly that it’s hard to imagine her using the rivalry as motivation for anything substantial. Monday was still two of the very best facing each other, and that’s exciting, but it’s hardly a rivalry.